Doesn't Google Owe SEOs Something?

“It’s one of the most important rules of search engine optimization. Don’t depend solely on SEO. Especially don’t depend solely on Google, the largest of the SEO sources. I’m always surprised when people fail to learn this lesson.”

That’s how Danny Sullivan began his column,  “Penguin’s Reminder: Google Doesn’t Owe You A Living, So Don’t Depend On It,” on Search Engine Land last week. In that piece, Sullivan draws parallels between Google’s latest algorithm update, codenamed Penguin, and algorithm changes from the past. He references the online virulence that often occurs in the wake of such changes. Penguin has been no different. Hence the article and the position that Google doesn’t owe you anything -- get over yourself.

I understand his message, and even agree with the core theme: You need to diversify your investment in online marketing. You wouldn’t place your entire retirement savings into a single stock. Similarly, you shouldn’t rely exclusively on organic search engine traffic to sustain your business.



But people will always resist change. There’s fear in the uncertainty of it all. Because no one has any real control over changes Google makes, you can expect a vocal minority to cry foul. We saw it with Panda, we saw it with “secure search,” we’re now seeing it with Penguin.

I don’t have any real beef with algorithm updates, per se. I understand the motivations for both Panda and Penguin. They (for the most part) make sense too.

But Sullivan misses the point of frustration that many have been experiencing with Google of late. The real source of tension here is between Google and actual SEOs, not online business owners. It’s rational to expect businesses to diversify their investment in online and offline communications channels; it’s equally rational to expect SEO practitioners to freak out when Google changes the rules of the game – changes that often seem irrational because of the lack of a believable explanation.

The most recent, non-algorithm-related, changes have given me pause to reflect on this, and it’s become plain to me that SEOs make their living off the ecosystem built by Google. They have a right to expect more.


What would Google be without SEOs, after all?

I’ve been admittedly vocal about my frustrations ever since Google announced it was making search “more secure” by encrypting organic queries when its users were logged into Google Accounts. I wrote twice on that change (here and here), and the topic still bothers me today.

There are plenty of examples of Google’s brashness in recent months beyond secure search. The two biggies were the consolidated privacy policy, and the constant presence of Google+ across search results. And I can’t help but wonder whether Penguin’s detractors would be less upset were it not for this recent string of announcements. Perhaps we’ve become hypersensitive to change because we’ve begun distrusting everything coming out of Mountain View.

Let me be clear, though: SEO became a legitimate industry on Google’s watch. It is an industry that was both created and cultivated by Google, and through the years a symbiotic bond was formed with SEOs. Google showed us the blueprint for content discovery and valuation. In return, we held its hand as new content was published.

Would Google have discovered the most relevant content without SEO? Probably, but we have accepted the responsibility of indicating which sites and content we believe are most important for a given query.

And we have both profited considerably from this relationship.

So while no one should place all his or her eggs in one basket, I do think we have the right to expect more support and greater reciprocation from our “partnership.”

Though Sullivan believes we shouldn’t expect anything, how can Google not owe us something?

11 comments about "Doesn't Google Owe SEOs Something?".
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  1. Robert Kahns from MarineMax, May 7, 2012 at 4:18 p.m.

    I do not think most SEOs are relying solely on Google, but it is the mere fact that Google search is providing most of the organic traffic compared to those other eggs in the basket; say roughly 2/3rds based on comScores latest search share report...

  2. Danny Sullivan from, May 7, 2012 at 4:28 p.m.

    I haven't missed the point that SEOs feel frustrated with Google of late. You might take a look at "2011: The Year Google & Bing Took Away From SEOs & Publishers," a piece I wrote earlier this year. It took Google to task over the withholding of search term data under the guise of better privacy protection.

    But that piece will probably also give you a quick refresher on how much support Google has continually given to SEOs over the years. The right for "more support" that you want? Until last year, Google has continually ramped this up. There are support tools we couldn't dream about back in the days when you suggest that Google made SEO a legitimate industry.

    Of course, I don't know that I'd agree that Google made SEO somehow more legitimate. People were actively doing it before Google. Arguably, GoTo made SEO more legit. "Search Engine Marketing Finally Getting Respect," a piece I wrote in 2001, explains more.

    But to toss it back on you, you're really missing the point here. It's not that people will always resist change. It's that search engines in general, historically and beyond Google, have not liked spam. They periodically take new steps to eliminate it. And those who are spamming away rather than building good content get hit.

    Go in and look at the specific reasons that people are complaining about being hit on Google's support forums, as I did in my column. What you'll see over and over isn't SEO firms that are upset. What you invariably find are small sites that seem largely online-only businesses that have been engaging in bad linking practices.

  3. Reg Charie from DotCom-Productions, May 7, 2012 at 4:44 p.m.

    Google owes little to SEOers and would probably prefer if no SEO were done at all.

    This would allow Google to judge each page on it's own merits without a SEO editor trying to slant the content one way or another.

    If one is a proper marketer you do not put all your eggs in one basket. You diversify.

    Kudos @ Danny.
    "What you'll see over and over isn't SEO firms that are upset. What you invariably find are small sites that seem largely online-only businesses that have been engaging in bad linking practices." is spot on.


  4. Andre Szykier from maps capital management, May 7, 2012 at 5:01 p.m.

    Encrypting search is part of Google privacy guidelines and not necessarily about keeping such information only for the benefit of Google's revenue model. The latter is a positive outcome to Google and a negative one for others.

    In the future, search engines, to be competitive may have to offer the "do not share my results invisible" search option to its users; otherwise the next startup with a great new search tech that does not depend on Ad placements, could cannibalize the current players.

  5. Danny Sullivan from, May 7, 2012 at 5:15 p.m.

    Andre, encrypting search is a user benefit that didn't have to result in the loss of referrer data to publishers. Google deliberately made changes to prevent referrer data from going to publishers but NOT from going to its paid advertisers. It also left loopholes in data reported through Google Webmaster Central and with Google Instant suggestions. Bottom line, it touted a change as promoting using privacy but oddly, and knowingly, left security loopholes including some that benefit its advertisers.

  6. Ryan DeShazer from GSW Worldwide, May 7, 2012 at 5:21 p.m.

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I've also read a few of the tweets in response to this, and don't think I clearly expressed myself here -- this wasn't supposed to be a controversial topic. :)

    I am not at all upset by Panda or Penguin. I started thinking about this topic when a colleague and I debated some of the common aspects of Google & SEO to Google and the Android developer community. We wondered aloud about Google's responsibility to SEOs: is it at all similar to the responsibility to provide SDKs or well-documented APIs to Android developers?

    It was an interesting discussion, and following Danny's column last week I decided to write this. I think too, that the article reads as if I'm implying that Google isn't doing enough (or anything at all). That's not what I'm saying, either. Although I'm not happy about "secure search" or the explosion of G+ across organic SERPs, I'm just saying that we have the right to expect tools and support. That this isn't a unilateral relationship.

    I do believe that white hat SEOs have delivered value to Google over the years, and not just to themselves and their clients.

    Danny - RE: comment on Google making SEO "legitimate" -- primarily an acknowledgement that rankings on Google were driven by the introduction of PageRank versus legacy engines' use of meta keywords and other simpler tactics. PageRank itself eliminated the spam of the day.

  7. Joshua Lee from Firehouse Advertising, May 7, 2012 at 5:41 p.m.

    I'd have to agree with Danny, I think he drove home exactly what the point is...don't be spammy and diversify traffic.

    None of my clients have been significantly impacted by major updates because organic search is a part of their overall strategy and therefore just a small portion of traffic. But also because of the tactics we utilize in our organic search campaigns.

    That being said, I always appreciate insight straight from the horse's mouth.

  8. Chris Nielsen from Domain Incubation, May 7, 2012 at 10:46 p.m.

    No, no, no! That is my reaction to the following from your article: "...SEO became a legitimate industry on Google’s watch. It is an industry that was both created and cultivated by Google...". Perhaps that is true depending on how you define "SEO", but I define it the same now as I did back in 1998 when starting learning about SEO. The core of SEO is the same today as it was then, and that is to have the content on your site match what people are searching for so you get indexed and found. The "H tags", the links, Tweets, and the rest are all icing on the SEO cake and cannot be counted on, predicted, or fully understood. You can expect that it will change, but basic optimized content should always work until we have direct brain to PC interfaces perfected.

    As far as Google not appreciating what SEO's do, I think that is due to spammers, black hats, grey hats, and all the white hats that refuse to be "bullied" by Google the search-Nazi. While I agree with some of Google's webmaster guidelines and policies, there are many that I do not. They get away with what they do for now because they have most of the marbles. But please don't infer that Google was responsible for SEO becoming a "legitimate" industry. It's insulting to all of those that were doing SEO for Yahoo, Alta Vista, Hotbot, etc.

    Most of you don't realize that there is a huge battle going on. It's Google against the spammers as it has been, but the spammers now have things like xrumer, scrapebox, and others. These spamming tools are cheap and powerful. When I say they are powerful, I mean that one person with scrapebox has the potential to get hundreds of thousands of backlinks in a week or less. And they ain't all craps links either. I think new algo shifts and modifications will be geared towards this threat more and more. All our sites may or may not be affected as the turf war wages on. I try to keep perspective by reminding myself that it really doesn't matter what I think: Google doesn't care. :-)

  9. Ryan DeShazer from GSW Worldwide, May 7, 2012 at 11:20 p.m.

    Thanks Chris. I think the "legitimate" comment needs more context. Here's what I meant, and wrote to Danny in my follow-up comment above:

    "RE: comment on Google making SEO 'legitimate' -- primarily an acknowledgement that rankings on Google were driven by the introduction of PageRank versus legacy engines' use of meta keywords and other simpler tactics. PageRank itself eliminated the spam of the day."

  10. David Thurman from Aussie Rescue of Illinois, May 8, 2012 at 7:38 a.m.

    I am with Mr. Sullivan, I see way to many "SEO" guys that are showing me the "tricks" or "testing" they have done to garner rank, when to me, it's gaming the system, they will think otherwise, but I honestly feel you write your content for the reader/user. If you are speaking their lingo and yours, then bliss will happen, but try to do small tweaks and tricks and getting smacked is what happens when an SEO guy/firm don't really provide quality.

  11. Thomas Pick from Webbiquity LLC, May 9, 2012 at 9:36 a.m.

    First off, Robert Kahns makes an excellent point - it's not that SEO's over-rely on Google or that they don't want to diversify traffic streams (always a good idea), but that Google drives a disproportionate share of website traffic regardless.

    It's not a matter of Google "owing" SEOs something, but a matter of the two working at common purposes: creating and displaying the best possible content to match a given search query. No legitimate search professional is going to shed any tears for black-hats who focused on manipulation over quality.

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